COMMENTARY | Ninety games into the 2013 season and the Pittsburgh Pirates have had only two four-game losing streaks. After the team's 5-0 victory over the Oakland A's on Wednesday night, the Pirates appear to be back on track.
A team that sat atop the standings when the month of July started, is now 1.5 games back of the St. Louis Cardinals in the NL Central. Losers of seven of their last nine games before Wednesday's win, the Pirates will get a much-needed break as All-Star weekend approaches.
After that, Clint Hurdle and his club will face many questions down the stretch. Here are five to keep an eye on as the summer rolls along:
Upgrades are needed, but where?
Their offense ranks in the bottom third of the league in many important statistical categories, including batting average (23th), on-base percentage (22nd) and slugging percentage (20th). There are two, maybe three positions where the Pittsburgh front office can look to improve before the July 31 trade deadline.
The most needed upgrades are bench production and first base. As Pittsburgh Tribune-Review sports columnist Dejan Kovacevic pointed out in his column Wednesday, the Pirates' pinch-hitters are failing to, you know, actually hit.
"What it needs are more bats, including what's already here … But no bench trade is ever a major trade, and that's now mandatory territory. Between [Brandon] Inge, Travis Snider, Gabby Sanchez, Garrett Jones and Michael McKenry, the Pirates are .148 as pinch-hitters, with one home run and 11 RBI. That's not just upgradeable. That's unconscionable."
He's right. The Pirates must improve somewhere, if nothing else to give them a different look coming off the bench.
Is Gerrit Cole here to stay?
Let's be clear, my stance is that, yes, he should stay in the majors -- barring any injury or major setback -- but the question has to be asked. Through six big league starts, Cole is 4-2 with a 3.68 ERA. More impressively, he's reached the sixth inning in each of those starts with an average of 85 pitches per outing.
If he stays in the rotation for the remainder of the season, he's likely to reach 100 innings pitched. Add that to his 68 innings of work in AAA before his call-up and now questions of overuse begin to surface. But if his production doesn't slip, you have to keep him up -- especially if the Pirates are in a playoff race.
Will the real Andrew McCutchen please stand up?
Maybe we were spoiled last season, but Andrew McCutchen has yet to play the way many expected he would. After finishing last year with a .327 batting average, 31 home runs and 96 RBIs, the All-Star center fielder has followed that up with a good, not great season.
So far, McCutchen is hitting .303 with nine homers and 47 RBIs -- like I said, good, just not great. He is on pace to set career marks in doubles and stolen bases, but many would like to see his power numbers improve in the second half.
If Pedro Alvarez -- who hits behind him in the batting order -- continues his great start, McCutchen should begin to see more pitches to hit. Advantage: Pirates.
Can the bullpen continue to be lights out?
It's no secret the Pirates roster is built around quality pitching and without that they struggle to win games. The good news is the pitching staff has a league-best 3.09 ERA and is holding opposing teams to a .225 batting average. The bullpen has been even better with a 2.86 ERA, trailing only the Atlanta Braves.
However, there's reason for concern as the season treads on. Manager Clint Hurdle has used his bullpen for 318 innings, which is 40 innings above the league average. It's paid off thus far, but you worry about fatigue setting in down the road. If their starters can go deeper into games now, the more energy their relievers will have in September and October when they're needed the most.
Poised for a pennant race
The question that everybody will continue to ask for the next couple of months is no mystery.
Can the Pirates play well enough to not only stay above .500 but also make a push for the playoffs?
For the past two seasons, the answer to that question has been no. I wish I had the answer this year, because then I'd be a rich man.
However, we may find out that answer sooner rather than later. When the Pirates return from the All-Star break, they begin a 10-game road trip starting in Cincinnati. After that, they welcome the division-leading Cardinals to town for a five-game series.
No 15-game stretch will make or break a team's season, but it could provide a sign of things to come. As the old adage goes, baseball's a marathon, not a sprint.
Then again, I'm sure this year's Pirates would prefer to keep sprinting now and jog later, because it's going to be a race to the finish.
Kevin Connelly is a Pittsburgh native who's been alive for five of the city's 14 sports championships. He has a journalism degree from the University of Tennessee and is currently a sportswriter at The Vindicator in Youngstown, Ohio. You can follow him on Twitter @Kevin_Connelly.
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